I really do love pizza, but being lactose-intolerant kind of makes it suck. Sure, there are pizzas that don’t involve cheese, but you don’t find a whole lot of good ones in Montreal. If I do find one, I probably won’t like something else about it, like the sauce, or what’s used to make the crust (too much salt, too much sugar, preservatives, or other things I can’t pronounce). Besides, there’s something so sad about having a pizza craving for luscious, gooey cheese and having to settle for a mediocre tomato sauce made with low-quality ingredients on a dough of enriched, bleached flour.
So I did what I generally do in this situation – I made my own.
It took a fair bit of time, but I had a bunch of leftovers that would serve well as toppings. I had some spicy tomato and eggplant that failed as an Indian dish but worked well as a bruschetta, some leftover pasta sauce from Roberto’s (a very good Italian fresh pasta shop and gelateria way up in Little Italy), some fresh arugula, some red peppers, and a bunch of leftover grilled butterfish.
What I didn’t have was a pizza pan, but a big cookie sheet worked just fine. A few weeks of foccacia in Italy taught me that pizza does not necessarily get better when it’s round.
I used Josée di Stasio’s pizza dough recipe, with a few very tiny changes (cornmeal instead of durum semolina – there is a difference, but I didn’t have any of the latter – and whole wheat flour to replace one of four cups of white when I ran out). I love her cookbook. I knew this would be a good recipe because she does not put bad recipes in her book. As long as my variations worked out, so would the pizza dough.
This is not a recipe to make when you don’t have a lot of time. This is Italian slow-cooking at its best. It makes two huge pizzas or four small ones, but if you like thin crusts, it’ll make at least 3 standard size pizzas.
2 tbsp dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar (I used cane sugar)
2 1/2 cups of warm water (38 degrees Celcius, 100 Fahrenheit. I actually got the temperature perfect. I used two candy thermometres to make sure I didn’t mess it up…overkill? Maybe, but probably not)
4 cups all-purpose flour (I used première moisson, a Quebec bakery that sells its amazing white bread flour which is ground at a Quebec mill. They use this stuff for all their breads and their own pizzas, and there’s just nothing quite like it. Di Stasio recommends ’00’, a high gluten flour, and I’m sure Red Fife flour would be great too. Like I said, I ended up using 3 cups of première moisson unbleached white flour and 1 cup of their whole wheat flour (which is significantly not as nice as the white flour for cookies and cakes since it’s not very fine, but decent for savoury and textured baked goods, like breads and pizza dough).
2 cups wheat semolina (yeah, I used cornmeal…not sure how okay this substitution really is, but the cornmeal was instant, so I figured at least it wouldn’t expand in my stomach. It would absorb the warm water instead. I wasn’t about to mess around with the water to flour ratio, though)
1 tbsp salt (this was too much salt, in my opinion. I like salt, and it turned out well, but my tongue knows when I’m enjoying it too much. It also knows that I’ll be very thirsty afterward. So 2 tsp is what I’ll use next time)
In a small bowl I combined the yeast, sugar and perfectly heated warm water. I stirred to dissolve and then let it stand for 10 minutes. Exactly 10. There was at least one timer involved.
During this waiting period I combined the flours, cornmeal and salt, and sifted it together. I used a real sieve, not just a spoon like I sometimes cheat with in baking (never for Alice Medrich’s cakes, and never for a recipe I don’t know, like this one). The cornmeal didn’t sift particularly well, but it was the flour that really needed the sifting. Sifting actually adds air to the flour, which is important when you want it to rise and be light.
By now the 10 minutes were up, so I poured the yeast mixture on top of the sifted flours and mixed them together. Di Stasio gave no instruction on how to mix, so I started with a wooden spoon (stirring in just one direction, which I thought I’d heard somewhere for dough), and then with my hands, since the next step was kneading. I’d also heard you don’t want to overmix, so I just stirred until there were no flour clumps left.
I’m so bad at kneading, but since the Première Moisson flour is specifically made for bread, it has a pretty decent amount of gluten. This makes it easier to knead since it stretches without breaking. I threw a bunch of flour down on a clean counter, had a bunch of extra on the side, and lathered up my hands in the stuff (waterless lathering, of course). I think the dough was stickier than it should have been, since it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I ended up adding about a quarter cup of flour extra as I kneaded. At least I know it wasn’t because my water had been too warm. It may have also been because of using cornmeal instead of semolina.
Knead: Push away from me with the palm of my left hand, holding the right side of the dough gently with my other hand. Fold the pushed-away section back on top. Rotate 90 degrees clockwise. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It says knead for 5-8 minutes, but I’m a slow kneader since I wasn’t 100% sure what I was doing, and was being extra careful not to tear the dough, so I kneaded for about 10. The test (as I’d also seen somewhere) is to push down on the dough with two fingers and if the imprints rise back up and disappear, then the dough is elastic-y enough. This happened, so I figured I was done. I also took it as a good sign for the rest of the bread process to come.
Then I divided the dough in half, formed them into balls, and put each half in its own oiled bowl. I covered the bowls with plastic wrap (I don’t have big enough kitchen towels, and I just heard yesterday that plastic wrap is maybe even better, but that might only be for certain kinds of dough rising in certain areas of a kitchen of a certain temperature and humidity…again, I am a newbie) and put it in the oven with the light on. It was a warm, humid day, so I figured it would actually be warmer out on the counter, but I wanted it to be in a draft-free space. 45 minutes later the dough hadn’t quite risen enough, so I left it an extra 20. It was supposed to double in volume, and I don’t think it ever quite got there. The yeast was good, though, so I don’t know why it wasn’t cooperating. Maybe the whole wheat flour? Or over-kneading? Or not kneading enough?
After the first 45 minutes I also decided to turn off the oven light and turn the oven on to its lowest heat while keeping the door open to try to help the bread rise. I’d heard this was good too, but maybe not on such a humid day, since the dough decided to stick to the sides of the bowl. I quickly got it out of there, punched it down (as per the recipe) and kneaded again for about 5 minutes per ball of dough (the recipe said 3, but slow kneader that I am…).
Then the dough balls went back into their respective bowls, got covered again, and put back in the turned off oven with the door open. This was a happy medium (a bit of extra heat from the oven having been on, but not as bad as actually having the heat on while the dough was in there).
I let it rise for another hour (the recipe said 45, but mine needed some more time. Again, it didn’t seem to really being doubling in volume…).
Finally I rolled the dough out on a clean counter (there was a whole lot of counter cleaning this day – scrubbing, scraping, wiping) using a bottle of dessert wine/rolling pin coated in flour and placed it in my baking sheet that I’d brushed with oil. I rolled it out into a big rectangle to match the shape of my cookie sheet, but if I’d had a pizza pan, it would have been just as easy to roll it out into a circle. I’ve never worked with such nice dough! It stretched without breaking, and just kept on giving. Pie dough is always a struggle, a battle of wills between it and me, but this was much more an act of cooperation. The second ball I wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the freezer for pizza another day without all this kneading and rising fuss. No need to go through this whole process again for awhile.
Once on the baking sheet, I let it rise one more time (just for 10 minutes). I preheated the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and once the dough had done its very best to rise one more time, I spread my tomato eggplant sauce over half the dough, my gourmet pasta shop-bought tomato sauce on the other half and added some fresh arugula. Then I added some pieces of grilled butterfish to both sides of the rectangular pie to get a few more combinations. Oh, and some diced red peppers to the tomato section. I basically tried to make as many different kinds of pieces as possible.
The cool part was that there was actually too much dough!! I don’t love a really thick crust, but I certainly couldn’t make it thin without having to cut off a lot of excess. Even then, I ended up with a lot of overflow. So after added the toppings, I rolled the excess back into the baking sheet to make a rounded crust. I didn’t realize it until after it had cooked that in effect it became a stuffed crust, since the dough overlapped the fillings and locked them inside!!! Accidental miracles…the mother of culinary invention.
Then all I had to do was stick it in the oven for 15-30 minutes, until the crust was golden brown. I didn’t want to destroy the fresh arugula with the long cooking time, but the crust just never seemed to get golden. When I took it out after 25 minutes, though, it was clearly cooked. I was worried I might have over-cooked it, but the inside was still chewy and delicious. The whole wheat and cornmeal gave a really nice grainy texture that pure white couldn’t provide. Another time I will try this with the proper flours, but this was still an amazing crust. The whole wheat also turned the dough into something of sustenance. It was filling and made you chew and savour, and not inhale white fluff, like the doughs of store-bought, or even bad to mediocre restaurant-bought pizzas. There really was too much dough, though, so the extra pieces got torn off and turned into quasi-bread sticks with different dips (as bizarre as it sounds, it actually worked well with my mint chutney. It was also perfect soup-dipping bread, too, since it didn’t just dissolve in the liquid).
Verdict on the pizzas? The tomato sauce with arugula was my favourite. I really liked the tomato and eggplant because it was chunkier, and the fish worked best with the plain tomato. It also added some necessary protein and gave me the necessary feeling of being full. I ate a whole lot of pizza anyway, which is fine since I do it so rarely. The arugula got over-cooked but I actually liked the dry, crispy chip-like quality of it. Not as good for me, but oh-so-delicious. Oh! I had a bit of raw cheese that I grated (somewhere close to a parmiggiano, so not the best for this pizza, but beggars can’t always be choosers, try as I might) and added to individual mouthfuls. I couldn’t melt it on top since that would kill the digestive bacteria, the whole reason I can eat the stuff in the first place, but I got the flavour of it on any given bite I wanted.
The pizza was also great once it had cooled down a little and stopped burning my mouth. Reheated in the toaster oven over the course of the next few days, it was still delicious, and I even managed to get the edges a little crispy. The nice part about the leftovers is that the oil from the sauces can seep down into the dough and make it soft and gooey. This contrasts with the crunch and chew of the thick sides.
I can’t believe how versatile and successful this was. Bread is such an amazing thing, and this is such an amazing recipe. Mmm pizza…